On New Year's Day, with a temperature of 14 and snow powdering the Flint Hills, Eric Nelson showed me around his little slice of summertime in Council Grove. I needed one. Sick of the cold and the ice and jarred salsa, I'd been looking forward to seeing the place where I'd heard ripe red garden-variety tomatoes were growing in pots of perlite and peat.
Wichitans have been buzzing about the garden tomatoes being sold at Johnson's Garden Center that have familiar names like Jet Star and Big Girl (though they are not labeled).
Marty Johnson told me that the tomatoes came from Neosho Gardens in Council Grove, which provides annuals, perennials and other plants to independent garden centers in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. It turns out that owner Eric Nelson started growing garden varieties of tomatoes last winter as one way to try to make up for a dwindling demand for his poinsettias. Not that poinsettias are falling out of favor — it's just that mass-marketers have driven the price down, and Nelson's costs don't allow him to go that low.
Now Johnson's is one of a few regional businesses that sell Nelson's tomatoes at a time farthest from when we can get them from the garden and when most of those in the grocery store are from Mexico.
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"Everybody that eats a sample buys a tomato," east-side Johnson's manager Wes Hostetler told me. How could you not?
"They taste just like tomatoes in July," Marty Johnson said. To boot, Nelson uses beneficial insects instead of chemical pesticides, and brings in bees for pollination.
"It's incredible," Johnson said.
Nelson has nine acres of greenhouses, built one after another over previous cold winters, and while every inch of space is vibrating green in the spring, the space is mainly empty once the poinsettias ship out for Christmas.
On this New Year's Day, cuttings of New Guinea impatiens and seedlings of other annuals and perennials were just peeking out over the edges of their teeny pots. Boston ferns made for a tropical roof, hanging up against the glass, closest to the sun.
We walked from greenhouse to greenhouse, out of the elements, warm, I thought, until we came to the last one. Then Nelson opened the door on real warmth. Tomato-growing warmth. Seventy degrees.
And there they were. Three thousand tomato plants divided into two long swaths on either side of the greenhouse, climbing string to a height as tall as the 6-foot-2 Nelson can reach _ 8 feet.
"I don't want to pick off ladders," he said.
The plants looked healthy, well-behaved, bearing clusters of tomatoes in green, yellow, red and heirloom Cherokee Purple. Nelson explained how he and his staff pinch out the suckers to produce one main stem, and tie it to the string as it grows higher and higher, picking the tomatoes as they grow from the bottom up.
I snapped photos of boxes of the colorful fruits like I was on vacation, Nelson protesting because "those are Number 2s!," his way of pointing out blemishes. But they looked like a sunny beach to me.
Nelson grows 12 or 13 varieties, some names we'd recognize, others as foreign as a ribbed variety from Holland. Some of them have developed blossom end rot — he won't be growing those again — while one commercial variety from Florida, BHN-589, bred for flavor and not for shipping, has performed beautifully.
The tomatoes cost $3.39 a pound at Johnson's, which sounds high only until you take Nelson's $25,000 heating bill into account. And that was for last month, not for this January deep freeze.
"If the tomatoes are high quality and taste good and you want that in a tomato, it's worth it because you're not going to get them anywhere else," Sedgwick County extension agent Rebecca McMahon said. "His cost is probably at least that. You're probably getting a decent deal."
Envisioning his January heating bill, Nelson indeed doesn't seem convinced that he's found his wintertime solution in tomatoes. He is also growing pots of gorgeous lettuce in a cooler greenhouse; big heads of Bibb are for sale at Johnson's for $2.98 each. "They're picture-perfect," Wes Hostetler says.
Unfortunately, disease wiped out Nelson's attempt to grow winter cucumbers, but the idea itself warms me.
The new year has gotten off to a good start, visions of sugar plums having been quickly replaced with salted tomatoes.